At 8 a.m. on March 20, the Mirage in Las Vegas will be a little different than usual. Typically at that hour, the casino is populated by an intersecting mix of bright-eyed golfers carting clubs to valet parking, washed-out gamblers who have spent the night blowing money while losing brain cells, and freshly shaven conventioneers off to their first meetings of the day. On this particular Thursday, however, the smart crowd will be piling into the sports book, chasing Starbucks coffee with swigs of lime-infused Corona. They'll be wearing college colors, smoking cigars and strategizing for four days of relentless gambling.
As Kenny White, one of the top oddsmakers in town, puts it, "The day is a nonstop thrill ride. And you never know what'll happen. You come out here and have a chance of winning pretty good."
The day in question is the opening of March Madness, aka the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship, three long weekends of college basketball games that, all told, generate more money wagered than the Super Bowl. Over that period, small fortunes will be won and lost, previously disparaged teams will emerge as shooting, dribbling, shot-blocking Cinderellas, and guys such as White will work nonstop to keep the point spreads as tight as possible.
As the owner of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, a company that Vegas casinos employ to make their betting lines, White sends out his predictions. Upon receiving them, sports book managers post point spreads (sometimes the numbers get massaged a bit) and thus begins a daily tug-of-war between casinos and gamblers. Based on how the bets come in, lines move up or down or simply stay where they start, reflecting an unending quest to achieve a balance that will minimize each casino's exposure.
In the moments leading up to the tourney's first tip-off, things become acutely intense. A lot of action, bets and emotion drive people's decisions. "On Thursday and Friday, it's nonstop for the fans, beginning when they eat breakfast and go to the sports book," says White, a trim, neat but casual guy with bristly salt-and-pepper hair. "You're betting halftime, the start of the next game and then the game after that. It's like being at a horse race where you are placing a new wager every 20 or 30 minutes. It's college sports all day, teams giving 100 percent, more than the usual number of buzzer beaters. And you have a chance to wager on this as well. You know it's got to be heart-pounding." White draws a breath before adding, "Then, at the end of the night, you have 100 tickets in your pocket and you just keep cashing and playing."
Or, in some cases, praying.
It's a week and a half before the 2007 NCAA tournament, and White starts receiving phone calls from Robert Walker, who oversees the sports books for all MGM Mirage properties (Bellagio, Mirage, MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay among seven others in Vegas). Walker is confirming that by 5 p.m. this afternoon, White will provide him with lines for the first group of games.
White promises to deliver, even though it puts a bit of pressure on him and four other college basketball oddsmakers with Las Vegas Sports Consultants. Matchups for the first-round games are announced on Sunday afternoon between 3 and 4 o'clock, just four days before the start of the first game. Sitting in their war room, not far from McCarron International Airport, White and his team stare at a wall of TVs. They simultaneously watch CBS (it broadcasts the matchmaking live) and ESPN (you never know what gems of wisdom the talking heads will offer), not making any decisions until the brackets have been confirmed, and then getting into efficient but intense debates over what the true numbers should be.
On this particular Sunday afternoon, they reach their decisions in 45 minutes. "That's one and a half minutes per game," says White, smiling proudly, pointing out that they managed to put up 32 games in so little time. "We each have ratings that we've been maintaining all year. So I can go through them in seconds and devise good numbers."
I ask White to demonstrate how he does this, and he invites me into his roomy office. On his desk is a black binder, filled with sheets of paper that contain stats collected over the course of the college basketball season. Each team gets its own page, and each player is assigned a numerical rating based on his quality of play. One of the 2007 matchups is Old Dominion versus Butler. White opens his book to show me how he reaches the number that will impact bettors and bookmakers around the world.
He's added up the numbers assigned to players and overall team quality and reached a sum of 147 1/2 (including an extra 2 1/2 points for defense and an extra 2 1/2 for coaching) for Butler. Old Dominion comes in at 148. "So," says White, "I have Old Dominion by half a point. They both play man-to-man defense. Neither team is very big. They're evenly matched in size, coaching and overall talent. The game takes place in Buffalo, so nobody gets home-court advantage. But because I raised Butler up through the year, I'll make it a one-point gameÉin favor of Old Dominion."
White's colleagues do not agree. Their opinions are all over the map, and the company's odds director, Tony Sinisi, winds up making Butler a 2 1/2-point favorite. So how does all that number jockeying shake out? In the end, Butler goes on to win 57-46. Which goes to show how difficult it is to predict these final scores and why, as White puts it, "one of our goals is to create a number that divides the room. If there are 100 people in the room, we want 50 who will like Old Dominion and 50 who will like Butler." Then the casino takes no risk and keeps 10 percent vigorish on all the bets it loses.
Once the numbers hit on Sunday evening, professional gamblers start circling the betting windows like jackals in search of fresh, slow-moving prey. Alan Boston is one of those pros, and he loves March Madness. It's not out of fandom; it's because these games provide great opportunities for so-called wiseguys, sharp bettors who know more than the amateurs and take advantage of mistakes made by all those Corona-sipping tourists who enjoy their annual pilgrimage to the Strip's sports books.
One night before the opening of the 2007 NCAA tourney, Boston is eating dinner at his favorite hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. Between bites of steak smothered in black bean sauce, Boston explains why he and the other pros embrace the Madness. "For one thing, there is a lot of public action [i.e., bets made by amateur gamblers] and a lot of volume, so the lines move in ways that create opportunities; tourists come into town, and they're going to bet.
"Plus you get a very pure, true result in these games," says Boston, heavily muscled and intense, with a shaved head and expressive facial features. "The kids [that is, the players vying for NCAA glory] are ready and they work hard for 40 minutes. It doesn't matter if it took them seven days to get there by plane. You know you're going to get a peak effort."
In terms of handicapping, Boston and the other pros hit their stride by the start of the NCAA tournament. They've been betting college basketball all season, accumulating information, gaining an understanding of what makes particular teams tick. "You have 20 weeks of basketball, 20 weeks of history, all rolled up into one game," continues Boston. "It's awesome to be coming in at this point. They put up a line and I react. That's the ultimate: your instinct just takes over. You find out what's relevant for each of these teams. That makes it so good for someone who's a thinker like me. The NCAA [tournament] is a free thinker's dream."
Early in the morning, on opening day of the 2007 NCAAs, the Mirage sports book resembles a cross between Mardi Gras and a college pep rally. One gambler describes it as "Disneyland for adults." Cocktail waitresses get a workout (drinks, after all, are on the house) and the line of eager gamblers, waiting to place wagers, never dissipates.
Behind the scenes, on the other side of the betting window, things are considerably more sober. That's where sports book director Robert Walker sits in front of three computer monitors. He tracks the lines and the inflow of cash, watching four- and five-figure sums flurry past him like so many snowflakes. A broad, dark-haired guy, dressed up in a sport jacket for the big day, Walker maintains a reserve of sunflower seeds on his desk—"It's going to be a three-bag day," he sagely predicts—and his coffee in a Styrofoam cup slowly gets cold.
The first two rounds of the NCAA tourney, he says, represent his favorite four days of the year. He enjoys the action, the new numbers that continually need to be posted, and the challenge of maintaining lines that will prevent him from getting burned. "Professional gamblers are the true oddsmakers," Walker says, quickly adding that he has an adversarial relationship with them, because they want to take his money and he wants to take theirs. "We put up the line as best we can and they put us in our place. Then, if you don't move the number, the pros will keep hitting it." He gestures beyond the confines of his office, with its wall of small TV monitors and dry erase boards, then says, "The pros are out there. They lurk at all times. If they're laying 7 on Duke and we inch up to 8, they bet it the other way [which is known as middling, and creates pretty much of a can't-lose-but-may-win situation]."
Walker's assessment notwithstanding, it's hard to figure out who exactly is the sharpy at the Mirage. To my admittedly untrained eye, everybody looks as if they're here to party and gamble. Countless players are palming chips and cash, gripping longnecks, conspiring to come up with what they view to be can't-lose wagers.
In the rear of the room, I spot a posse of recent college grads, betting slips in hand, rooting desperately for their alma mater, the University of Maryland, while plucking fresh beers from disposable plastic ice buckets that are pretty much ubiquitous here. "I slept today from 4 a.m. till 6 a.m.," one of the grads tells me, sounding a little breathless. "I got up early, but obviously not early enough. Or else we wouldn't be sitting all the way in the back." Down but not out, he and his buddies mark their turf with a scarlet Maryland banner.
High rollers plant themselves in reserved ringside seats, affording great views of the big screens and outfitted with their own personal TV sets. Fathers and sons who return every year for March Madness savor the routine and seal it with backslaps and betting, feeling nostalgic for simpler days. One pair, in from Seattle, dopes out handicapping strategies and the delineation of their cigars, while all around them groups of far-flung friends booze through their annual stag trip to Sin City. And there is at least one guy whose leanings are unmistakable: in a comfy seat up front, he keeps a plush version of the Maryland Terrapins' mascot face down in a small, plastic toilet. He munches from a big box of Krispy Kremes and grimaces every time the Davidson Wildcats blow a play, totally absorbed in his orgy of action.
As halftime hits for the first of the day's games, Walker is already in motion. He's getting second-half lines from Kenny White and is entering those into the casino's system. Fans on the other side of the wall react immediately, crowding up to the counter and placing wagers that will either double their pleasure, increase their pain or maybe serve as a Band-Aid by washing out a loss.
Just as the gamblers consider their prospects, Walker does the same, roughly calculating where MGM Mirage stands in terms of the bets it's taken, how the teams are doing and their prospects for the second half. Sounding like every gambler in the universe, he mutters about debacles, routs, lucky breaks and, particularly, the situation in the Louisville-Stanford game. "I'm gonna wait and see what the consultants come in at [for the halftime line]," he says, mostly to himself, already ripping through his first sack of sunflower seeds. "But I think Stanford will be a second-half favorite. You have to expect them to come back a little bit. They want things to be at least slightly respectable." Indeed, Stanford outscores Louisville in the second half by six points, pulling to within 20 by game's end.
Halfway through Day 1, things heat up a bit at Las Vegas Sports Consultants. In the never-ending factoring of March Madness information, White and his team need to start putting together point spreads for the next round of games. This process is a mellow bit of consensus gathering: the guys sit down in the war room, each offers a spread that he believes is right, and Tony Sinisi takes it all in before laying down the line that will stick.
In the case of Butler's second game, against Maryland, the guys' numbers are all pretty close, agreeing that Maryland is a 5- or 6-point favorite. Sinisi considers everything before going with the consensus and explaining his rationale for not making the spread even bigger: "Butler had started out strong but has recently been struggling. So there was a sense that Butler had peaked and wasn't coming into the [tournament] very well. But this Butler that we're seeing here is a much different animal. Butler is a more dangerous club than it was before. His sentiment is correct, but the number is slightly off: Butler wins 62-59 and clearly doesn't need the points.
On the other side of town, inside a large and luxurious house filled with oddly comforting round rooms, Alan Boston has laid out a spread of ribs, brisket and apple pie from a barbecue joint called Buzz BBQ. Boston sits behind a large desk, planted in his living room and affording a perfect view of the 62-inch TV that is the focal point of a far wall. He punches info into a computer, endlessly IMs with his gambling buddies, and occasionally has wagers in excess of $10,000 when one of the continually moving lines strikes his fancy.
He's hosting a handful of friends, most of whom have their own wagers to worry about. They're all sweating the games and gossiping about the poker scene while Boston works with a bit more fever and brio. No doubt he's got more at stake. At his feet are a couple of black binders—very much like the books in which White tracks teams' progressions—full of stats and power ratings from this basketball season. But Boston, who seems to be an inveterate malcontent, insists that they aren't doing him a whole lot of good. When a friend calls from his car and asks what he should bring over, Boston replies, "Nothing. I've got plenty of food and drink. I've got everything except winners."
Dusk is settling in. Boston ventures outside to blow off some steam by putting golf balls on the green in his backyard. By the time he returns, he looks rejuvenated and maybe even a little relaxed. "Virginia Commonwealth should be buried, and they're only down six," he says, trying to find an upside for himself. "And that's why I'm going to bet them at the half. They're the deeper team."
He reaches for the telephone and tries taking advantage of what he views to be an unnaturally soft line.
By 7 o'clock, after the last game tips off, the Mirage sports book resembles one of those New Year's Eve parties when at 5 in the morning only the diehards are still at it. The air reeks of booze and smoke. The carpet is littered with discarded betting slips. Still, however, the most ardent gamblers linger—seats are still difficult to come by—and the signs of dissipation, enhanced by a long afternoon of drinking, gambling and screaming for teams to rise above their natural-born limits and cover the damned point spread, are etched across their faces. Many are red-eyed and spent and using final reserves of energy to valiantly root on their picks.
Robert Walker has told me that the night games always take on added significance. "People are either trying to win back the money they lost or else they're parlaying the money they've won," he says. By all appearances, he's right. Feelings of hope and desperation ripple through the Mirage sports book and across the casino where gaming tables are crowded with sports fans who might be sick of watching (for today at least), but are not nearly sick of gambling. The guy with the plastic toilet has a new mascot getting a swirly. The father-and-son team admit to being exhausted, but they're still puffing away on fine cigars (as the second half nears, a Fuente Fuente OpusX is clipped). And, no doubt, behind the scenes, Walker is scrambling to put together the next batch of lines.
He knows his customers and he knows, for them, March Madness is synonymous with mad gambling. Like any smart merchant, he aims to give his people what they want, what they need, what compels them to crowd the betting window at the Mirage.
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.